YouTuber Logan Paul posted a video on New Year’s Eve showing what appeared to be the body of a person who had died by suicide — and by doing so, he may have put his audience at risk. The video, which Polygon reports has been deleted from Paul’s 15 million-subscriber YouTube channel, sparked outrage for its disrespectful treatment of a dead body. But the truth is that turning the remains of a human being into a spectacle is worse than just horrifyingly bad taste: by sensationalizing suicide, it could also be dangerous.
The video shows Paul and his friends visiting Japan’s Aokigahara forest. There, they spot a body of someone who had apparently killed himself, Polygon’s Julia Alexander reports. “Paul then walks up to the body, providing closeups of the man’s hands and zooming in on the pockets of the victim to point out he still has his wallet,” Alexander writes.
The danger is that such detailed, sensationalized coverage of suicide can prompt copycat behavior — a phenomenon called suicide contagion. “Suicide contagion is real, which is why I’m concerned about it,” Madelyn Gould, a professor of Epidemiology in Psychiatry at Columbia University, told The New York Times after actor Robin Williams’ widely publicized death from suicide.
People don’t kill themselves because of just one thing, like a divorce or watching a video. But exposure to suicide can increase the risk of suicidal behavior for vulnerable people, like those with mental illness or substance use disorders. Suicidal behavior, mental illness, and substance use disorders are all treatable, but those who experience them may feel hopeless. So being exposed to suicide, whether directly (a friend or family member’s suicide, for example), or indirectly (like through media coverage) can influence the likelihood of attempts. Young adults are especially susceptible, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. And Paul’s audience is primarily young people, Alexander reports.
The risk of copycat behavior increases when coverage glamorizes a death, describes the method and victim in detail, and uses dramatic headlines containing the word suicide, according to Gould’s research and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The Department for Health and Human Services webpage notes that coverage “should not glorify the victim and should not imply that suicide was effective in achieving a personal goal such as gaining media attention.”
Even detailed descriptions of the location could prompt more suicides there, according to a report from the World Health Organization. “Particular care should be taken by media professionals not to promote such locations as suicide sites by, for example, using sensationalist language to describe them or overplaying the number of incidents occurring at them,” the report says. The title of Paul’s video? “We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest . . .” according to The Washington Post.
The power people like Logan Paul have to reach young audiences means they have a responsibility to treat the subject of suicide with care. Fortunately, organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have posted recommendations for reporting on the subject. YouTubers considering a similar, disrespectful, and dangerous stunt would do well to consider these best practices, too.
Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide
Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
Word headlines carefully
Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide
Provide information about where to seek help
Recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide